Coronavirus quarantine and lockdowns are starting to end. Here's how reopening will work

As states and cities start to ease lockdown restrictions, here's what it will take to return to normal social and economic activities.

Clifford Colby Managing Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
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Clifford Colby
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The state and regional coronavirus guidelines are designed to keep public spaces safe and residents healthy.

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Months after large parts of the country shuttered businesses and required residents to stay indoors to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the reopening of the US economy is now in progress. Even without a wave of public protests surging across the country, the lifting of regulations and warming weather have allowed businesses, parks and other public areas to carefully reopen with residents either encouraged or mandated to wear a face mask indoors where social distancing is difficult.

As the surge of COVID-19 infections slowly declines in many parts of the country (it's also picked up in others), more businesses in your area are likely opening up again in the hopes that new cases will arrive in numbers that won't overwhelm hospitals.

Many states are following a multistage roadmap to relaxing rules that apply to businesses such as movie theaters and hair salons. For example, California is in the second phase of a four-stage plan to fully reopen the state. Likewise, New Jersey is moving through the second phase of a three-part plan to reopen. Here's what all the phases mean for you and your city.

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Phase 1: Slow the coronavirus spread

Many parts of the US are now moving out of this phase. It requires residents to practice social distancing and follow stay-at-home orders, staying indoors except for essential trips to the store and recreational walks. 

In this first phase, nonessential businesses and activities such shopping malls, theaters, sporting events, hair salons, barber shops and casinos are shut down. Businesses that provide essential health and safety services have stayed open, including grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, hospitals, medical centers, banks and gas stations. 

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Restaurants -- as well as pubs and bars in states such as New Jersey -- are considered essential, but require you to pick up your order or have it delivered instead of sitting down to eat.

While outdoors, residents are required to avoid large groups, practice social distancing and, in some regions, are mandated to wear protective face masks.

Phase 2: Lockdown begins to lift

For many, this is the phase their state is moving into. The US government, working with public health advisers, suggests that quarantine restrictions can begin to ease after:

  • The number of daily cases steadily drops for at least two weeks.
  • Hospitals and medical centers can operate outside of crisis mode to care for all COVID-19 patients.
  • Coronavirus testing becomes widely available for at-risk healthcare workers.

California has loosened restrictions on construction and certain DMV operations and reopened parking lots for state parks. Restaurants are open for takeout and delivery. The state is also looking at how professional sports events can return this summer, perhaps following Germany's model.

Some states are still looking for for more safeguards, such as widespread testing for anyone with symptoms, to fall into place. Contact tracing could be another big component for some states, to quickly find people who have come into contact with an infected person, and self-isolate.

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States in Phase 2 are starting to open businesses that are considered low-risk for spread of the virus, such as garden supply stores, construction sites and manufacturing locations. To return to work and school, expect social distancing requirements indoors (for example, keeping desks six feet apart) and potentially temperature checks as part of the condition of entering a building or classroom.

The most vulnerable people, including older people and those with underlying conditions, may still be required or encouraged to shelter in place.

Watch this: Contact tracing explained: How apps can slow the coronavirus

Phase 3: Open more businesses and activities

With dwindling daily cases and more widespread testing, state leaders will move to this phase and reopen higher-risk businesses where customers and workers are in close contact for longer periods of time, such as nail shops and hair salons. Gyms and movie theaters may also open in this phase. Some states, such as Georgia, are already moving to this phase.

As states carefully relax restrictions, contact tracing will play an increasingly important role in monitoring the spread of the virus. Contact tracing is a long-accepted tool used by public health officials to identify infected individuals and anyone who may have come in close proximity with the person who tested positive for the disease. To help identify possible new COVID-19 cases, health officials are looking to our mobile phones to build a list of contacts.

Phase 4: Herd immunity or a vaccine will help restore normalcy

The goal of the first three phases is to bring us to a point of community-wide resistance to the coronavirus. One way to achieve that is called herd immunity, which means that 60% or more of the population has been exposed to the coronavirus and have gained some degree of immunity from it. The other approach is through a vaccine, which is still thought to be a year or more away. Once we do have a safe and effective vaccine or antiviral medicine to protect and treat the population, authorities will be able to fully lift social-distancing orders and bring on a new normalcy.

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What about travel bans and restrictions?

Reopening public transit and other methods of mass transportation such as airline and train travel for nonessential trips is an important but potentially higher-risk stage, because passengers are often in close contact for extended periods of time. Domestic airline travel already comes with a set of restrictions, but international vacations aren't currently encouraged. And in some cases they aren't even possible, as airlines have cut routes.

States will also look to relaxing interstate travel: Some states, including Hawaii and Rhode Island, require anyone who arrives in the state -- resident, visitor or tourist -- to self-quarantine for 14 days.

As your state opens up, you'll still want to take steps to make sure you stay safe. Here's how to keep the virus out of your home, how to avoid misinformation about the virus and what you need to know about coronavirus treatment. If your state or region is easing its coronavirus restrictions, let us know in a comment.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.